Pike’s Peak and the Colorado Gold Rush—topics that are familiar to many. But did you know that Colorado Gold Rush is something of a misnomer?
At the time, the gold rush was simply called the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush, also a misnomer since the gold fields were about 85 miles north of the famous mountain. However, Pike’s Peak was an important landmark on the trail, a sort of beacon that could be used to guide travelers over the broad and mostly markless plains. This whole territory, across the plains all the way up to the summit of the Rocky Mountains, had been organized in 1854 under the Kansas-Nebraska Act as Kansas Territory.
Rumors of gold in the region had existed for decades, as trappers had previously found small quantities of the precious metal. Some Cherokees traveling to California in 1848 stumbled across more gold along the way. Miners headed to the west coast in 1849 and 1850 had also found the precious metal while passing through the area. They did not stop to search for more, however, since they were hoping for greater discoveries in California.
But one California miner returned. William “Green” Russell learned about the 1848 gold discoveries from his Cherokee wife and her relatives, and after several years in California he decided to investigate the stories. In July 1858, Russell found the first significant gold deposit in the Rocky Mountain region.
On the way back home, Russell happened to meet up with William Larimer Jr., a land speculator living in Kansas Territory. When Larimer heard Russell’s story, he spread the news, then promptly set out for the gold region—but not to dig. Larimer knew which occupations paid the best during a gold rush, so he staked a claim and organized a town of which he was the first resident. He named his new town Denver in honor of Kansas Territorial Governor James W. Denver.
The rush began as soon as the news reached civilization, the words “Gold in Kansas Territory!!” blazoned across the pages of the Kansas City [Missouri] Daily Western Journal of Commerce that August. Some historians believe that as many as 100,000 prospectors responded by flooding the region beginning in 1859. Larimer sold tracts of land as fast as prospectors arrived. Mining camps sprang up overnight.
Most prospectors reached the gold fields by way of the Smoky Hill Trail along the river of that same name. Others used portions of the Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail. No matter their route, their slogan was the same: “Pike’s Peak or Bust!”
It was not until Kansas achieved statehood that the borders were changed. While debating the Wyandotte Constitution, Kansans determined that it was best to cast off the far western portions of the territory. At that time, Kansas was already an unwieldy conglomeration of separate interests, not to mention mostly uninhabited except at the two extreme ends. Kansas was admitted to the Union on January 29, 1861, with its present borders.
Colorado Territory was organized about a month later under Larimer’s supervision, its borders corresponding to the boundaries of the present-day state of Colorado. Thanks also to Larimer, Denver became the capital of the new territory. It is probable that Larimer had entertained hopes of being made governor of Colorado Territory, but it was not to be. President Abraham Lincoln gave the position to William Gilpin of Missouri, possibly to foster loyalty in that somewhat disaffected state. After fighting in the Civil War, Larimer went home to Kansas to become a state senator.
By that time, however, the gold rush was already just about over. The deposits of free gold were exhausted by 1863. Gold was still present, but it was found in combination with other substances. The rush gave way to the industrialized system of gold mining still important in Colorado today.
Nevertheless, the change of boundaries changed the way history has viewed the 1859 excitement. It has been known as the Colorado Gold Rush ever since.